Ayumu Watanabe returns with a new feature film. He made a pretty big splash with Children of the Sea (even though Pixar's Luca probably hogged more attention with a very similar premise), a wildly ambitious film that was no doubt a bit too challenging for the budget involved. And so he follows it up with Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko [Gyokou no Nikuko-chan], a film that is a tad more limited in scope (and thematically way too tricky for any American studio to tackle, out of fear of burning their hands on such material). The result is a fun and pleasant coming of age drama with its heart in the right place.
The film's biggest eye-catcher is the titular Lady Nikuko, a somewhat meaty lady who faces life with her head held high. She is quite the character and matches a fair few of the clichés surrounding fat people, so it should come as no surprise that several reviews have been hitting the film pretty hard for perceived fat shaming. The film is after all a very easy target for a bit of virtue signalling. Stick with it though, and it should be more than apparent where Watanabe wants to go with the material. This will require nuance and some insight, but that's nothing a moderately slightly savvy film fan should find himself stumped by.
Regardless of the problems some might have with the handling of Nikuko's character, it is quite obvious the film needed something to set itself apart from a slew of similar rural coming-of-age dramas. There are only so many ways to tell the same story, so having this bubbly, overweight, slightly childish mother doing her best to raise her daughter really gives this film the unique spin it needed. This feeling only grows stronger when the true nature of Nikuko slowly comes into play, and it becomes exceedingly clear that we are seeing the reflection of her character through the eyes of her embarrassed teen daughter.
As the introduction makes clear, Nikuko is a sweet and loveable woman, who is just a little too trusting. All the men she dated took advantage of her good nature, and so Nikuko ends up moving away from Tokyo to some small, quiet coastal town. There she hopes to find some peace and quiet for her daughter Kikuko. Kikuko is a somewhat shy and unsure girl who is still trying to figure out who she truly is. She is embarrassed by the boldness of her mother, she gets pushed around by her friends, and the boy she likes is somewhat of a recluse oddball.
You're watching a Studio 4°C film, so rest assured that the quality of the animation is on point and that the art style has a unique twist. The background art is more reminiscent of Ghibli, though generally features more detail. The character designs on the other hand stand out and are a bit more fluid. Nikuko's character in particular appears in several levels of abstraction, largely dependent on Kikuko's mood. The flashback scenes feature a more muted and oldskool look, whereas the intro is almost Yuasa-like. Watanabe knows when to use what style, and the talent at Studio 4°C is more than capable to pull off whatever is asked from them. It's nothing too exceptional, but it's still top tier material.
The soundtrack is nice, but not quite as remarkable. It is cheerful, emotive and quite varied, but none of the compositions really jump out or manage to give the film a more distinct vibe. Seeing how the film chases that cheery anime rural drama feel it's not all that surprising, but it wouldn't have hurt to try and be just a little more daring. As for the dub, I'm sure there's an English dub available for those who can't stand foreign languages, but the original dub is excellent and there is some play with local accents that will be very difficult to mimic/translate. Not that I'm an expert on Japanese accents, but the effect is obvious enough and the execution is flawless.
There are moments when it feels as if Watanabe made it just a little too easy on himself, following beaten paths and sticking to established genre clichés. The nice thing about Lady Nikuko is that Watanabe always finds ways around them or gives interesting spins on the themes and characters. He isn't scared of taking a bolder approach and because of that, the drama pays off, without appearing too simple or sentimental. It does require you to put any prejudice and simple reactive commentary aside, but those who stick with it won't be disappointed.
For more than 25 years now, Studio 4°C has been establishing itself as one of the most creative, innovative and challenging animation studios in Japan (and by extension, the world). Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko does nothing to shame that reputation. It's not their most definitive film, but when the benchmark is that high that's hardly a negative. The art style is wonderful, the animation is lovely, the characters are pleasantly different, and Watanabe's bold dramatic choices pay off nicely in the end. It's a difficult film not to love, and it aptly showcases the director's versatility, I'm already looking forward to Watanabe's next.